The Muckraker: No Left Turn

On a gloomy evening in this season of discontent for liberal Democrats, many fine examples of the species have ventured out into the cold in search of solace. Hulking SUVs with bumper stickers that read “More trees, less Bush” jam the parking lot at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington as several dozen fleece-clad suburbanites shuffle inside for a panel discussion of the recent election results. Sharp objects and belts are not confiscated as they enter the hall, but given the liberals' post-election funk, that might not be a bad idea.

“The party right now looks very fractured,” moans one woman. “We're reeling.” The crowd's grim mood is not lightened by the comments of the featured analyst, longtime pollster, and Democratic activist Lou DiNatale of the Center for Economic and Civic Opinion at UMass Lowell. In the presidential race, Democrats had “no answer” for the Republican one-two punch of tax cuts and tough foreign policy, DiNatale explains. Presidential nominee John Kerry “looked like Prince Charles and was married to Princess Foo-Foo.” The party's attempts to harvest pocketbook voters were a predictable flop, DiNatale says. “White, working-class males don't vote for Democrats.”

It's all so depressing for the audience members, most of whom stare ruefully as DiNatale outlines the dimensions of the presidential and congressional disaster. But their expressions brighten when the meeting's host, state Representative Jay Kaufman, brings up the election results in Massachusetts. Here, voters not only gave Kerry a ringing home-state endorsement but added three seats to the Democratic majority in the legislature and re-elected several Democrats targeted by the right for their support of same-sex marriage. DiNatale notes that this showing comes on the heels of a crucial leadership change in the House, where state Representative Sal DiMasi, a North End Democrat and supporter of progressive causes in the past, has taken over the speakership from Tom Finneran, a fiscal conservative and longtime bête noire of Beacon Hill liberals. “You're gonna see the Democrats move toward policy ascendancy,” he says.

DiNatale's not the only one who feels that way. “Everything has changed,” says state Democratic Party Chairman Phil Johnston. “There will be a renaissance of traditional Democratic policies in this state.” Adds former state and national party chair Steve Grossman of Newton, “The election has certainly emboldened Democrats to believe that we can make some substantive progress on issues that have languished for a long time.”

Platform shoes made a comeback. So did big hair. Could the Beacon Hill liberalism of the '70s and '80s follow suit?

Heroically counterintuitive Massachusetts. It's a tempting self-image. Local liberals have succumbed to it before: Every once in a while on the Vineyard, you can spot a summer-house car with a faded “Massachusetts, the One and Only” bumper sticker, a souvenir of George McGovern's sole victory in Richard Nixon's 49-state 1972 landslide. But it's also delusional. It overestimates the willingness of DiMasi and other Democratic leaders to veer left. It underestimates the residual strength of Governor Mitt Romney's anti-tax politics. It ignores two longstanding trends: the fragility of the state's economy and the legislature's gravitation toward the political center. If anything, warn some top party figures, a Beacon Hill spending spree could touch off an anti-Democrat backlash to rival the cataclysmic election of 1990, when Republicans hijacked the governor's office and posted significant gains in the legislature. “Hope springs eternal,” says anti-tax guru Barbara Anderson of Citizens for Limited Taxation. “If that's what they want to think, that somehow there'll be a liberal renaissance, let them fantasize.”

DiMasi has made few promises since assuming the speakership in September, save for a vow to make the House process more open and inclusive than it was under the notoriously autocratic Finneran. Yet in a measure of how desperate Massachusetts liberals have become, they're juiced by the mere prospect of getting some of their ideas sprung from committee purgatory. “Many of us have a head of steam because we've been so ready to participate that, now that there's an invitation to do so, we are alert and energetic,” says Kaufman.

The release of all that energy will mean little more than what DiMasi — a faithful enforcer of Finneran's dissent-curbing orders when he was second in command — lets it mean. “Sal isn't as ultraconservative as Finneran was, but does that mean it's gonna be a liberal State House? No way,” says state Representative Charlie Murphy of Burlington, who supported DiMasi after receiving assurances of a more open House process. “All I can ask for as a rep is the ability to have my day in court.”

If there are any liberals outside of public-employee-union headquarters who think raising taxes has a chance of success, we couldn't find them. As conservative Democratic congressman Stephen Lynch points out, persistent economic softness and red ink in the state budget make new spending a political gamble. “If we don't watch our budget closely,” he says, “we could give rise to massive and structural budget problems where cities and towns are constantly pressured for [property tax cap] overrides within their communities. If those gaps persist, you could see a backlash from the voters like we had in 1990.”

Grossman, the former party chair and one of many failed Democratic candidates for governor in 2002, worries that irrational exuberance over the 2004 election results could undermine the party's chances of ending the Republican lock on the governor's office two years from now: “While the people of Massachusetts clearly supported Democrats who stood up for principles and equal rights, they are going to be very focused on more centrist, common-sense leadership when it comes to their chief executive,” he says.

Translation: Forget about bigger government and tax hikes to pay for it. Establishment Democrats may have proved adept at ignoring or miscalculating the electorate's rightward drift, but even given Massachusetts' singular status as a safe haven for progressive ideas, they're unlikely to blow through the red light on tax hikes voters have been flashing here for a generation or more.

DiMasi has a reputation as a go-to guy for social-service lobbyists, but could he emerge as a front man for the return of expansive liberalism? “Not on the tax stuff,” says no less an expert than Tom Finneran. “There's a greater concentration within the party on competition and the economic difficulties we face. Some may have been brought kicking and screaming to the table, but even they now see the wisdom of restraint.”

If Beacon Hill liberals are content with progress on flagship cultural issues, such as equal rights for same-sex couples, then the post-Finneran era, which begins this month with the start of the new legislative session, holds promise. Unlike Finneran, DiMasi supports gay marriage. The failure of the issue's opponents to generate support for their candidates in the recent election is likely to undercut the chances of a ballot question next year banning gay marriage. But that doesn't mean tax-and-spend liberals should take the 2004 election results as a sign that happy days are here again.

That's a reality on display, surprisingly enough, at Jay Kaufman's Lexington gathering. There is a request from the stage for a show of hands from those who thought their vote on election day might bring about tax hikes. One tweed-
covered arm — that of a local public-school
administrator — goes up. The hopeful smiles that greet Kaufman's reminder of the statewide election results fade quickly when he adds his own pragmatic analysis to the discussion. “Liberals are given to Hail Marys, and it's an open question whether we can recapture the party,” he warns. “If we do, it's gonna look a lot different from what we thought back in the 'Kumbaya' '60s.”